Sergeant Harry Buchanan stumbled between the twisted trees, the smell of blood in his nostrils and a red haze fringing his vision. Distant gunfire echoed in his ears -- it seemed to come from whichever direction he turned, and he was compelled to turn again. He’d been spotted by an enemy patrol; he could hear them occasionally, calling to one another, tracking him across the wastes. In the distance, he could just make out the distant trenches, a sharply dileanated horizon just a little higher than expected, where the darkness met the blackness. Over it hulked the square ruin of the Eglise Saint-Joseph with its off-kilter steeple, larger and closer to no man’s land than he remembered. Or was it the Eglise Sainte-Genevieve? These French country churches seemed to run into one another after a while, their parishes all clinging alike to some semblance of civilisation even as stray shells toppled the roofs from their steeples and shattered their windows into a fine, crystalline dust.
Imagine kneeling in that!
Unexpectedly, his bare hand fell on worn stone, and Sergeant Buchanan instinctively pulled himself flat against it. He could feel it, a ruined stone wall, not quite shoulder-high, spreading out behind his sweat-soaked back. Had he somehow made it back to the parapets? Throwing his arms over the top, he hauled himself up. Briefly, he saw the trenches spread out before him, a maze of waterlogged wood and sandbags, before he tumbled down the other side. Something near his navel caught on the stone; he heard a snap, and then the clatter of metal somewhere off to his right.
That would be the pocketwatch he’d received from his men when they were demobbed. Sergeant Buchanan muttered a curse. There was a reason they’d switched over to wristwatches in the trenches, even if some men considered wristwatches effeminate. When they were demobbed --
Harry Buchanan stopped. He ran his hand over the bare stone at his back and forced himself to think. Demobbed? Yes. He’d been demobbed. He wasn’t Sergeant Buchanan anymore. He hadn’t been in a while. How much stonework had there been in the trenches? The red haze was receding, and the gunfire was fading into the rustle of leaves. The waterlogged wood and sandbags he’d imagined were lines of low, broken stone walls. He was in a ruin of some sort: a quiet, peaceful ruin of an English country church. Its steeple, crumbling like those of the French eglises but without the marks of cannonfire, rose up before him.
This was why he hadn’t been able to hold down a job in the past year, he thought bitterly. This was why he wouldn’t be missed.
He was about to go back for his pocket watch when he heard the snap of twigs, something moving through the underbrush, and a voice calling to another. That hadn’t been his imagination! Abandoning the watch to whatever demons were in pursuit, Harry scurried, doubled over, along the base of the stone wall to the church steeple. He was a dead man if he waited out in the open, that much he knew, and the steeple might prove to be a trap; but it was a better defensive position. Harry was counting on lasting at least until daybreak.
The door at the base of the steeple was still sturdy, and locked tight. No doubt the key had been lost for decades, if not centuries, and that was probably a good thing. It would halt his pursuers. Harry slipped around the corner to the dark side of the structure, felt for handholds in the rough stonework and among the ivy, and hauled himself up. A minute later, he tumbled into the belfry, rolled to his feet, and flattened himself against the wall.
It was silent. Through the wide belfry windows, Harry could see the village spread out around the church ruins, yews shading slate roofs. The dark shape breaking the horizon was not another war-battered church but the local lordling’s manor house. A light gleamed in its tower window, and for a moment, Harry wondered if he could be seen from there by its occupant. Surely not.
There was no one on the ground. He could just glimpse, from this angle, the door at the base of the steeple, and it seemed undisturbed.
Harry’s sigh of relief caught in his throat as something creaked in the recesses of the steeple beneath his feet. He turned in time to see a trap door fling open, and a hulking figure, as tall and broad-shouldered as Harry himself, pushed itself through it into the belfry. Terror took hold and the red haze washed again over his vision. Sergeant Buchanan took a step back, and his boot caught on the lip of the parapet. For one wild moment, he was poised on the edge of nothingness, arms windmilling to find balance --
And then a strong hand caught hold of him and pulled him back to safety.
“You’re not going to kill me?” Harry mumbled.
The voice that answered him was a soothing rumble. “Don’t be silly. You’re no use to me dead.”
Something sharp jabbed into the back of Harry’s neck, and the red haze gave way to a spinning black euphoria. As Harry slipped to the floor, he thought he heard the voice rumble on: “Not yet, anyway.”